Grievances do matter in mobilization


This article proposes that by studying grievances as not only materially but also ideationally constituted claims, scholars can gain analytical leverage on puzzles of social movement emergence and development. This meaning-laden approach to grievances recognizes that the ideas with which some claims are imbued might be more conducive to motivating political resistance than others. The approach is inherently grounded in context—scholars begin by understanding the meanings that grievances take on in particular times and places. But it is also potentially generalizable; as scholars uncover the ways in which apparently different grievances may index similar ideas across time and place, those grievances can be categorized similarly and their potential relationship to social mobilization explored. Drawing on evidence from the 2000 Bolivian water wars, the article proposes that market driven threats to subsistence resources offer one such potential categorization.

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  1. 1.

    See McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald (1996) and Tarrow (1998) for an overview of social movement literature.

  2. 2.

    Some scholarship does focus directly on grievances. See, for example, D. A. Snow et al. (1998), and McVeigh (2009).

  3. 3.

    Following John Comaroff, I take meaning to be “the economy of signs and symbols in terms of which humans construct, inhabit, and experience their social lives (and thus act in and upon the world)” (cited in Wedeen 2009, pp. 81–82).

  4. 4.

    Some accounts of these events describe them as the “water war” in the singular. Others use the plural. I adopt the plural, “water wars” as there were multiple protest events, each of which can be understood and described as its own “war.” Interestingly, most participants in the water wars call the entire set of events the “guerra del agua,” using the singular. However, when they discuss different episodes of protest, they use the “primera guerra del agua” (the first water war) to refer to the January protests events, the “segunda guerra del agua” (the second water war) to refer to the February protest events, etc. The plural, therefore, while not a literal translation of they ways in which most participants name the events, remains true to how they describe them.

  5. 5.

    Sidney Tarrow offers a clear articulation of this line of reasoning: “Even a cursory look at modern history shows that outbreaks of collective action cannot be derived from the level of deprivation that people suffer or from the disorganization of their societies; for these preconditions are more constant than the movements they supposedly cause” (Tarrow 1998, p. 81). An additional line of critique focused assumptions of irrationality and disconnection embedded in strain theories (McAdam 1999). The movements of the 1960s suggested that participants could be both rational actors and highly embedded in dense social networks.

  6. 6.

    For an important exception see D. Snow et al. (1986).

  7. 7.

    For example of the former see McCammon et al. (2001) and Van Dyke (2003). For the latter, see Snow et al. (2005).

  8. 8.

    Goldstone and Tilly return to Tilly’s earlier distinctions in continuing to advocate the separation of “threats” and “opportunities” in social movement analysis, yet they provide little guidance on how to theorize threats.

  9. 9.

    The approach resonates most closely with prospect theory (e.g., Kahneman and Tversky 1979).

  10. 10.

    Einwohner and Maher argue that when information is credible, threats understood to be “unsurvivable, imminent, applicable to local actors, and nonmalleable” are most likely to produce mobilization (2009, p. 30).

  11. 11.

    Ioannis Evrigenis’s (2008) work takes a different approach, turning to political theory to explore connections between fear and collective action.

  12. 12.

    For example, Van Dyke and Soule’s (2002) analysis of militia organizations looks implicitly at type of threat by identifying “structural transformations” as potential triggers for militia organizing. Their explicit focus, however, remains on the severity of the grievance as they find evidence for their hypothesis based on continuous measures of economic restructuring. These findings offer important building blocks for a theorization of grievances rooted in attention to meaning-making. One might want to study, for example, the particular kinds of economic restructuring that was taking place in militia-heavy areas and what meanings those changes took on.

  13. 13.

    See Mueller (1992, p. 5) for the importance of grievances in frame analysis.

  14. 14.

    In particular see Gamson (1992, p. 60).

  15. 15.

    Thanks to Elisabeth Clemens for helping bring this to my attention. The etymology of the word can be traced back to a reverberating sound or echo. Yet even the metaphor of the frame suggests problems with the concept of frame resonance. A frame is something outside of something else—it is a boarder designed to enhance the appearance of a picture inside or a basic structure designed to bear a load. The ways in which scholars deploy the frame metaphor places meanings somehow on the outside, while simultaneously insisting on a frame’s embeddedness. It is difficult to reconcile the two, and this, I argue, is at the root of many of the challenges inherent in using the concept of a frame to understand better the processes of political contention.

  16. 16.

    Snow and Benford (1992) begin to tackle these questions when they argue that potency of the frame depends on its resonance, which in turn depends on the “empirical credibility, experimental commensurability, and ideational centrality or narrative fidelity” of the frame itself (p. 140). By empirical credibility, the authors refer to the “apparent evidential basis for a master frame’s diagnostic claims” (ibid., p. 140). Experiential commensurability suggests direct experience with a problem, and ideational centrality refers to how well the frame “rings true” with a given contextual system. This is as close as they come to theorizing grievances.

  17. 17.

    In her analysis of social mobilization around AIDS in the 1980s, Gould offers one analytical tool for understanding variation in frame resonance. Gould looks to shifts in “emotional habitus” to explain why a frame might not resonate in one moment, whereas years later the same frame may resonate powerfully among the same group of people. Gould clearly shows how a confrontational frame did not work effectively in the early 1980s—when the emotional habitus centered on grief, gentility, and respectability—but became the core of the movement after the Bowers v. Hardwick decision made anger a more acceptable and accessible emotional response.

  18. 18.

    Whether a grievance fits into the broad category may be highly locally contingent. This article argues that grievances can be both defined contextually and systematically categorized. Snow and Benford (1992) argue that whether a frame resonates or does not depends on its empirical credibility, experiential commensurability, and ideational centrality.

  19. 19.

    See Gould (1995) for a discussion of participant identities and how certain identities can be brought to the fore in certain moments.

  20. 20.

    Jasper defines a moral shock as “an unexpected event or piece of information [which] raises such a sense of outrage in a person that she becomes inclined toward political action, with or without the network of personal contacts emphasized in mobilization and process theories” (1997, p. 106).

  21. 21.

    Jasper also suggests that different categories of grievances might produce different types of social movements. Environmental concerns, he asserts, are more likely to be interpreted globally and thus lend themselves to broad-based movements, while social concerns may be less likely to transcend cleavages and protest movements will be more parochial as a result (Jasper 1997, p. 285). He does not, however, explore the potential theoretical insight of his point.

  22. 22.

    The case I want to make is similar to the one that Deborah Gould proposes with respect to emotions and social movement theorizing (2004). In her entreaty to bring emotions back in, Gould argues that attention to emotions will help scholars better theorize “the relationship between political opportunities, frames, and resources on the one and, and movement emergence and decline on the other” (ibid., p.n 164). Just as theorizations of the experience of feelings can help us better understand when frames might resonate, why a moment is understood as an “opportunity” or how a movement builds resources, attention to the meanings with which grievances are imbued can help us understand variation that the political process model leaves un- or under-explained.

  23. 23.

    I further elaborate on the relationships between the grievances and opportunities, resources and frames in both the case analysis and the concluding section of this article.

  24. 24.

    Interestingly for the subsistence category of grievances proposed here, Zald offers “a potato famine in a country dependent on potatoes as the main staple [or] an overnight doubling of the price of bread, where bread is a staple” (1991, p. 349) as examples of “hard” grievances.

  25. 25.

    Here Zald’s findings are reminiscent of Walsh’s (1981) research on the response to the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (indeed, Zald cites Kischelt’s work on the subject) and his assertion that “suddenly imposed grievances” are more likely to trigger collective action.

  26. 26.

    Zald’s concern that “critical and hermeneutic analysis conducted without close attention to the links between societal and cultural change and specific movement mobilization will once more lead to reified assertions about the conditions of life an alienation, only loosely connected to the real life situations and real political consequences confronting actors” (1991, pp. 351–352) is well-placed. Yet analysis attentive to meaning making need not reify its subjects nor remove itself from “real life.”

  27. 27.

    For McVeigh, a decrease in an actor’s status or economic or political purchasing power creates a shift in interpretive processes that then “alters the way in which individuals understand their circumstances and creates new framing opportunities for those who wish to organize collective action” (2009, p. 49). The argument offers yet another angle from which renewed attention to grievances appears to be both theoretically and empirically rewarding. Indeed, McVeigh offers an example of the categorical theorization of grievances advocated here. McVeigh’s analysis does suggest a number of questions. It is unclear why attention to grievances should be limited to right-wing mobilizations. Furthermore although interpretive frames are critical for McVeigh, movement leaders play an indispensible role in their construction. The frames resonate widely because of the power devaluations experienced by target groups. But Klan organizers carefully crafted these frames to ensure maximum resonance. McVeigh does, indeed, look behind the frame to uncover a broadly shared and culturally resonant grievance. But movement leaders continue to do much of the work to translate those grievances into social mobilization. It is almost as if grievances become meaning laden only when savvy movement organizers describe them as such. Klan members appear as economically, politically, and socially aggrieved members of society, willing to channel those grievances into demands for privileges for native-born, white Protestants.

  28. 28.

    Some civil war literature does take a closer look at grievances, often focusing on environmental or spiritual grievances, and studies the violence—both organized and unorganized—that emerges when these claims or practices are threatened. Although Baechler’s (1998) and Homer-Dixon’s (1999) analyses suffer from several flaws, both authors make an explicit attempt to connect environmental scarcity to social effects. Through a focus on environmental issues, these scholars attempt to draw links between a particular category of grievance and systematic individual or communal reactions. In Peluso and Watts’s (2001) edited volume on violence and the environment, contributors pay more careful attention both to the “processes by which violence occurs” (p. 22, emphasis in original) and the importance of meanings and identities in those processes. Yet the emphasis in their analysis remains on the process and symbolic meaning of the struggles, not on the grievances around which these struggles are taking place. For example, in the same volume, Nandini Sundar, who is attentive to the power of national patrimonial frames in contestation around Indian forestry claims, does not explore how or why these frames become possible.

  29. 29.

    I recognize that this is not their intention. The chapter does a great job of meeting their stated goals, offering an excellent contribution to critiques of current treatments of grievances in the social movement literature.

  30. 30.

    Here I am drawing on a widely accepted critique of Clifford Geertz’s work on Indonesia (Geertz 1973, 1980; Wedeen 2002).

  31. 31.

    In discussing where and how discourse analysis is useful as a method for studying social movements, Hank Johnston writes that such studies are best suited to the “‘hows’ of ideation in social movement development rather than the ‘whys’ of general mobilizing processes” (Johnston 2002, p. 72). I propose that by focusing on the work that language and symbols do, discourse analysis can, indeed, serve as a useful method for explaining the “whys” of mobilizing processes.

  32. 32.

    In his study of collective action in the Owens Valley, sociologist John Walton (1992) pays explicit attention to the role that meaning plays in generating collective action, but stops just short of theorizing the grievance itself. In all three cases he studies, Walton notes that “the combination of hardship and the meanings and purposes generated by culture and ideology provides the most telling explanations for collective action” (ibid., p. 319). He calls on scholars to treat culture as “prior to and more fundamental than the terms within” the dominant models of collective action and argues that “the interplay of culture and ideology precede particular mobilization strategies, give meaning and purpose to group organization, and determine the interests, organization, and mobilization methods available to a population or a community” (ibid., p. 324, emphasis added). The causal role for meanings in Walton’s account is clear, yet whether a particular category of goods might work to produce similar meanings across space and time remains unexplored, as is the work that perceptions of the grievance (water in this case) itself may be doing to motivate and shape protest.

  33. 33.

    Hannah Pitkin’s (1972) recounting of the quarrel between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic about what justice “is” offers an illustrative example.

  34. 34.

    Furthermore, context does not simply mean reference to a particular region or time period, but also refers to the actions that are undertaken in relationship to a particular statement, the felicitous conditions accompanying the utterance, the “grammar” of particular concepts, and the micro circumstances of a statement in relation to other statements. Water may be H2O to some people in some times and places, and it may be community to others—in the same time and place.

  35. 35.

    They are not, however, the only social science analyses that demonstrate connections between subsistence and contention. In particular, see Bouton’s (1993) historical account of the 1774 “freeing” of the grain trade in France and the riots that followed. Bouton draws heavily on Thompson’s conception of moral economy.

  36. 36.

    McClintock’s important analysis draws our attention to subsistence but focuses on the connection between hunger and peasant revolt (1984, p. 82) without exploring the ways in which a subsistence crisis may be about far more than physical hunger pangs.

  37. 37.

    Bourdieu’s concept of habitus adds important leverage to our understanding of how routine practices constitute our social worlds (1990 1977, 1990). Bourdieu understands habitus to be the socially constructed schemas that operate without conscious awareness to structure our worlds. They are taken for granted and as common sense or “natural.” They are so much a part of our lives that we engage them without questioning their social production. Habitus helps us navigate the world by acknowledging that many of its elements seem obvious, and, as a result, they fall away from our conscious analysis of why we do what we do (Bourdieu 1977, 1990). The concept of habitus helps us understand the ways in which subsistence practices create meaning in our lives, even if the meanings those practices take on are often taken for granted.

  38. 38.

    The concept of a “quotidian” community is explained below.

  39. 39.

    Jung (2003) makes a similar observation with respect to corn, and my language is lifted from hers. Jung writes that plummeting corn prices were “devastating” to Mexican peasants because “corn, and farming, is additionally at the center of the communal life, not just the livelihood, of Mexico’s rural population” (p. 8). But the development of this insight is not her primary purpose and, as a result, goes understandably un-theorized.

  40. 40.

    This is not to imply that the practices become static. They change constantly.

  41. 41.

    In his study of Old Regime Paris, Steven Kaplan (1996) offers an example of which the production and consumption of a staple grain can imbue it with community-related meanings. The baguette, Kaplan argues, serves as a “metonym for the nation and its civilization in France” (ibid., p. 3). For the French, he argues, “the loaf contained something more than calories and nutrients” (ibid., p. 23), conveying “social identity” (ibid., p. 46), and serving “at the core of both the material and symbolic organization of everyday existence” (ibid., p. 23). See Ferguson (1985); Comaroff and Comaroff (1990); Ohnuki-Tierney (1993); Moore (2000); Perreault (2001); and Perreault (2005) for additional examples of the ways in which subsistence goods take on community-related meanings.

  42. 42.

    Kaplan describes how the routines between bakers and patrons in Old Regime Paris were often “ritualized and coded” (1996, p. 570). From these routines, he argues “grew the bonds of clientage, clientalism, and community” (ibid., p. 570).

  43. 43.

    See D. B. Gould (2009) for an excellent discussion of emotions and social movements.

  44. 44.

    Movement participants appear to have been unaware that a large, US based multinational firm, was a primary investor in Aguas del Tunari until well after the movement was underway. As a result, it is difficult to credit the foreign-ness the firm with any of the early participation. Accounts suggest that the connection between Bechtel and Aguas del Tunari was not revealed until March, 2000 (Finnegan 2002).

  45. 45.

    Data on the Cochabamba case come from newspapers and other archives, written materials (letters, pamphlets, etc.) produced at the time of the water wars, and extensive interviews with movement leaders, participants, and opponents, as well as government officials. Fieldwork was conducted during the summer/fall of 2008 and winter of 2010.

  46. 46.

    I am not proposing here that every movement leader or participant mentioned here or in the pages that follow was motivated either partially or entirely by the community-related meanings of water. A host of other factors was undoubtedly at work as both leaders and participants saw the moment through opportunistic lenses. For some it may have been a chance finally to fight the forces of neoliberalism, while for others it may have been a moment to demand increased regional autonomy; opportunism was not absent from the movement’s dynamics. Yet these claims alone had been unable to motivate large-scale resistance. Water provided the grievance around which various interests could unite, even if, for some, water was understood to be a vehicle and not an end in itself.

  47. 47.

    Electricity, oil and natural gas, telecommunications, and the national airlines were all privatized between 1985 and 1997. Rate increases, however, were relatively modest. Tariffs on private electricity consumption rose only 7 % during the first year of privatization in Cochabamba (1994–1995) and telephone tariffs suggest decreasing rates post-reform (Barja and Urquiola 2001).

  48. 48.

    The participation of the transportation union and the campesinos’ union are particularly worthy of note. The transportation union had reportedly refrained from public protest for over 19 years (Cochabamba unida, rechaza reajuste de tarifas de agua. 1999. Opinión, December 23) and the campesinos’ union had a history of poor relations with FEDECOR ( Peredo et al. 2004, p.61). That both groups joined the Coordinadora offers further evidence of the water’s coalition-building power.

  49. 49.

    This article does not take a position on the long run outcome of neoliberal reforms on economic growth. It is not controversial, however, to assert that many of them had immediate negative consequences for Bolivia’s poor. Whether the reforms will prove to have been a “good” decision for economic growth is heavily contested.

  50. 50.

    Evidence from London’s experience in 1989, when water privatization led to significant rate increases but organization to oppose the measure was limited (Bakker 2001), also appears to support the argument but price increases were not as dramatic. Water prices rose almost 30 % in the first 5 years of privatization (Saal and Parker 2000) but there was little mobilized opposition.

  51. 51.

    See Simmons (2012).

  52. 52.

    I have not attempted to theorize riots in this piece, and the mechanisms at work in a riot are likely to work differently from those proposed here. Yet a theoretical commitment to understanding grievances as meaning-laden suggests that further attention to subsistence riots would hone our understandings of the relationships between grievances and patterns of contention.

  53. 53.

    Joshua Tucker’s analysis (2007) both supports my claim that the systematic study of electoral fraud should yield generalizable results and treats all electoral fraud as if it might have the same results. In fact, his argument, grounded in a rational choice framework, suggests that electoral fraud should take on the same meaning across time and place, as long as citizens have “serious grievances against their government” (p. 537). Almeida (2003) also suggests that he understands fraudulent elections to function similarly across place and time when he states that fraudulent elections can serve as a particularly powerful motivator for threat-induced collective action (p. 353).


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Thanks are due to the participants in the Young Scholars in Social Movements Conference at Notre Dame in April 2011, for their comments, and in particular to Mayer Zald, who served as discussant. I also want to thank Elisabeth Clemens, John Comaroff, Jorge Dominguez, Rory McVeigh, Rachel Schwartz, Gay Seidman, Dan Slater, Sidney Tarrow, Lisa Wedeen, participants in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Comparative Politics Colloquium, and two anonymous reviewers for Theory and Society for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. The paper was originally presented at the American Political Science Association annual meeting in Seattle, WA in September 2011. All mistakes are my own.

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Simmons, E. Grievances do matter in mobilization. Theor Soc 43, 513–546 (2014).

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  • Social movements
  • Contentious politics
  • Meaning-making
  • Grievances